Why Well-Balanced Mark Few and Gonzaga Are the Perfect Marriage

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagFebruary 24, 2015

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SPOKANE, Wash. — Tipoff is just more than two hours away, but Mark Few's black Cadillac Escalade still sits in the driveway of his cabin-style home.

The Gonzaga coach's midnight-blue blazer hangs in a bedroom closet above his dress shoes, and, in the kitchen, Few's mother-in-law cooks turkey soup. His wife and four children play games and watch TV in the den.

Few will join them shortly.

But right now he's outside with Stella.

For nearly three miles through a mountain bike trail in the forest, college basketball's active leader in winning percentage jogs with his German shepherd. Much like the towering pine trees that stretch beyond his vision, Few's thoughts have no boundaries.

One minute he may reflect on a fly fishing trip to Alaska with his eldest son; the next could be spent devising a new inbounds play to run a few hours later against Loyola Marymount.

Mostly, though, Few embraces the silence.

Escaping the bustling campus for some alone time at the gated, 30-acre property surrounding his house has become a ritual before most home games. Few says it enables him to unwind, to inhale the crisp, clean air of the Pacific Northwest and relish the inner peace he's found at Gonzaga—and in Spokane.

Standing on his deck one day earlier, just steps up from the infinity swimming pool that overlooks the city's downtown, Few nods toward the scenic view and grins.

"This is my mecca," he says. "For me, this is what it's all about. All those people who wonder why I never leave...if they could see this, they'd understand."

The telephone belonging to Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth will almost certainly light up again this spring with calls from major-conference schools seeking to interview Few for their open head coaching positions.

The interest could be particularly intense this offseason, as some analysts believe the third-ranked Zags are the best team Few has ever coached. Still, just as he did with Cal last spring, and UCLA and USC the year before, Few will likely tell his agent to reject the overtures before a position is ever offered.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Few, who led Gonzaga to the NCAA tournament in each of his first 15 seasons, says he's never interviewed for another job.

"I can't imagine him anywhere else," Zags point guard Kevin Pangos says. "Everything he needs in his life is right here. He's got it all."

Indeed, there may not be a better marriage in college basketball than Few and Gonzaga, an unconventional Top 10 program guided by a maverick of a top-10 coach.

You can bet John Calipari isn't disappearing for pregame runs through Lexington two hours before tipoff; Kentucky would send out a search party. Kansas' Bill Self never planned workouts around his children's little league schedules. And Mike Krzyzewski won't be bringing his dog to practice.

Those types of quirks and nuances, though, are the very things that have led to Few's success in Spokane, where his life away from the program has molded the culture within it.

"In our profession, it's so easy to get wrapped up in your identity and in how people view you as a basketball coach," said Florida's Billy Donovan, one of Few's closest friends. "But Mark has found a tremendous balance in his life, a way to juggle all the things that are important. Coaching is something he does.

"But it's not who he is."

The knocks came late in the night.

Still in elementary school in tiny Creswell, Oregon, Mark Few would lay scared in his bed while his father, Norm, hurried to the front door, greeting stranger after stranger as if they were longtime friends.

At the time, the Fews' home was attached to Creswell Presbyterian Church, where Norm was the pastor. If a homeless person ever sauntered into town off Interstate 5—or if a car ran out of fuel and its passengers didn't have money to fill the tank—attendants at the gas station would direct them to the the family's home just down the road on Fourth Street.

Credit: Marcy Few

"He'd let people crash in the pews all the time," Few says of his father. "The next morning he'd give them a little money for food or gas or whatever and send them on their way.

"We're probably more like our parents than we'd like to believe. That doesn't bother me, because mine are saints."

To this day, Few said his father is "a legend" in Creswell, a town of about 5,000 people just south of Eugene. Along with being a pastor, Norm Few was a little league umpire, a school board member and a mentor to anyone in trouble.

For 54 years he delivered sermons every Sunday in Creswell, where he still resides with his wife, Barbara. Instead of seeking a new challenge or a greater level of fulfillment elsewhere, Norm relished what he had in the town he loved.

"He never felt like he needed to jump from job to job like a lot of pastors," Few says. "He was perfectly content with his life and didn't want to change it. That had a huge impact on me."

Just as his dad remained loyal to his church, Few, 52, has never wavered in his commitment to Gonzaga. Including a 10-year stint as an assistant, Few has been with the Zags for 26 seasons.

His teams once won 11 straight West Coast Conference titles, the longest conference-title streak since UCLA won 13 consecutive Pac-10 Championships, mostly under John Wooden. And Few's .810 career winning percentage currently stands as the fourth-best mark of all time in college basketball.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11:  Head coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs holds the trophy after winning the championship game of the West Coast Conference Basketball tournament 75-64 over the Brigham Young Cougars at the Orleans Arena on March 11, 2014 in L
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"I was confident in Mark when I hired him," Roth says. "But could I have predicted that he'd win all those titles and lead the nation in winning percentage? Of course not. No one could've."

That includes Few, who once doubted whether he'd ever get a chance to coach college basketball in the first place.

After graduating from Creswell High School in 1981, Few enrolled at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, hoping to play point guard for the basketball team before starring on the baseball diamond in the spring. But a shoulder injury he'd suffered a year earlier never quite healed, prompting Few to end his playing career and transfer to Oregon.

At the same time he was attending classes in Eugene, Few coached the freshman squad at his old high school, a position he maintained after receiving his degree.

Credit: Marcy Few

When he wasn't on the court, most of Few's time was spent on the water fishing and water-skiing, or playing golf with friends. In the summer of 1988 he went to the Seoul Olympics to watch two of his buddies from Oregon compete in the decathlon and pole vault competition.

"It was one of the best times of my life—and I slept on their floor," Few says. "Back then I never really knew what was going to happen next. I was just drifting around, having fun and hoping to eventually catch a break."

That moment came in 1989 while working at a basketball camp hosted by Oregon coach Don Monson. Few had helped at the event before and had become friends with Monson's son, Dan, who went on to become an assistant at Gonzaga.

Dan Monson helped Few land a job as graduate assistant with the Zags, a position that paid $1,500 a year. When Monson was named head coach the following season, Few was moved into a full-time role.

Reflecting on those times reminds Few how far the school has come.

The program that now charters a plane for away games didn't even have a strength coach back then. The Zags earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2013, but in the late '80s students couldn't even find Gonzaga basketball shirts and other gear in the Spokane mall. Practice often ended early so players would have time to run across campus to eat dinner in the student union.

23 Mar 2000: Head Coach Mark Few of Gonzaga can only watch as Purdue slips away with the 75-66 win during the NCAA West Regional Semifinal at The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. <<DIGITAL IMAGE>>
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The coaches weren't living a luxurious life, either.

Monson, Few and assistant coach Bill Grier all lived in the same house near campus.

"Believe me," Few says, "no one was complaining. We were single guys, coaching basketball, playing golf and screwing around at the lake."

Few laughs.

"Then all of a sudden," he says, "we were in the Elite Eight."

Gonzaga was making just its second NCAA tournament appearance in history in 1999 when a tip-in by Casey Calvary with four seconds remaining propelled the No. 10-seeded Zags to a 73-72 victory over Florida in the Sweet 16.

Gonzaga lost to eventual national champion Connecticut 67-62 in the Elite Eight two nights later, but the Cinderella run changed the course of the program, as Monson was hired by Minnesota that summer. Roth still chuckles at the reaction school president Father Robert J. Spitzer had when he told him he wanted to promote Few to head coach.

"Which one is he?" Spitzer said.

The hire, however, was approved.

Few certainly didn't lack confidence, but he couldn't help but temper his expectations for what may lie ahead.

"We tried like crazy," he says, "to make sure we weren't a one-hit wonder."

Shortly after 7 p.m. on a mid-February evening in Spokane, Mark Few stands on the sideline with his arms crossed, directing instructions toward the court.

"Nooooo...don't dribble into the corner!" Few says. "You're gonna get trapped!"

Few's tone is hardly one of anger or disappointment. Most of his comments are made jokingly and under his breath. Few, after all, is not at the McCarthey Athletics Center coaching the Zags. He's at a Spokane recreation center watching a youth league game, cheering for his eight-year-old daughter, Julia.

Jan 10, 2015; Spokane, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few walks off the court with his daughter Julie after a game against the Santa Clara Broncos at McCarthey Athletic Center. The Bulldogs won 79-57. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Spo

"Figuring these little people out is interesting," Few says, "but it's a lot of fun."

Few makes sure he doesn't forget that during the season, when he refuses to let basketball consume him.

The day before the Loyola Marymount game, he cut the Zags' practice 10 minutes short so he could drive to his son's church league game. After that, Few returned to his five-bedroom home to play fetch with Stella and fill up her bowl with dog food.

After a quick dinner of hot wings and gumbo at Jack and Dan's, a popular Spokane sports tavern once owned by the father of former Gonzaga and NBA star John Stockton, Few walks into the gym for Julia's game.

Within seconds of her team's 6-4 victory, Julia runs toward her dad on the sideline and wraps her arms around his waist. The moment is similar to the ones that occur after each Gonzaga home game, when Julia darts onto the court after Few makes it through the handshake line and jumps into his arms.

"I like those hugs, especially when we lose," Few says. "That's when I need them the most."

That Few is able to spend so much time with his family—even during the season—is something he may not have fathomed when he broke into the business as an assistant. He said he was at the office until almost 11 every night, writing recruiting letters and watching film until he could barely hold his eyes open. The job controlled his life, he said. It was all-encompassing.

Things changed when Few and his wife, Marcy, began having children. All of a sudden Few had priorities in his life other than basketball.

Few's daughter and three sons (who range in age from 6 to 15) hand players towels and water bottles on the Gonzaga bench and often attend practice. Instead of working deep into the night in his office, Few watches film at home on his laptop, often taking breaks to play "Get to the Base," a combination of hide-and-seek and tag, with his kids.

18 Mar 2000: Head Coach of Gonzaga Mark Few walks off the court with his wife Marcy and baby A.J. after the second round win over St. John''s at the Western Regional NCAA basketball tournament at the McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona. DIGITAL IMAGE.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

"People think they should get a badge of courage for getting to the office at 7 a.m. each morning and leaving at midnight," Few says. "People that do that are missing the boat. They're sacrificing their relationships with their families. It doesn't have to be that way."

Family life isn't the only thing that brings Few balance.

An avid outdoorsman, Few loves to ride his mountain bike throughout the hills and trails surrounding his home. The clean air and mild temperatures of the Pacific Northwest—"It doesn't rain as much here as it does in Seattle," Few says—are conducive to early morning and afternoon runs.

Perhaps no activity brings Few as much satisfaction as fly fishing. He boasts about the 51-pound salmon he hooked a few summers ago and could talk for hours about last summer's trip to Alaska with his eldest son. Few said the pair hooked hundreds of trout each day as massive bears walked within 20 feet of them in the water, ignoring the humans to go for the fish.

It's not uncommon during the season for Few to leave Spokane on an off day and drive a few hours to one of the region's hidden lakes or rivers where the fish are known to bite.

As much as he enjoys the thrill of a big catch, the reasons for Few's love of fly fishing runs much deeper.

Feb 14, 2015; Spokane, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few reacts after a play during a game against the Pepperdine Waves during the second half at McCarthey Athletic Center. The Bulldogs won 56-48. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

"Whether you catch anything or not, you can never have a bad day on the river here," Few says. "When you take in the scenery, there's not a shadow of a doubt that there is a God.

"You can walk off the 18th green and be mad about missing a birdie putt that cost you a bet with your buddies. But with fishing, you never leave mad because of the journey you took to get there. It's so peaceful, and there's no cell service. It's a great way to unwind and think about your team. When you come back you're not all tight and wound up."

Operating with that mentality, players and colleagues say, helped Few build Gonzaga into a national power.

From an X's and O's standpoint, Few is regarded as one of the nation's most versatile coaches. He's run everything from a FLEX offense, to motion, to high-low. He's succeeded with scrappy guards such as Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray to high-flyers such as Jeremy Pargo to NBA draft picks such as Ronny Turiaf, Dan Dickau, Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre.

With a limited budget early in his career, Few wasn't able to zigzag across the country for recruits, so most signees were blue-collar players who competed with a chip on their shoulder because they felt they'd been overlooked by major-conference schools.

But as Gonzaga's success continued—forget that "one-hit wonder" stuff—the funds increased right along with national interest. Constructed in 2004, "The Kennel" became one of the top home-court advantages in college basketball. Stars such as Adam Morrison—the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft—were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

Even though it was in a mid-major conference, Gonzaga was now viewed as one of the country's top programs. Luring top prospects became easier because Gonzaga had so much to sell: the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the opportunity to win consistently and compete in the NCAA tournament every year.

When recruits enter the Gonzaga locker room, they see a quote about the Zags from ESPN's Jay Bilas painted on the wall: "They go to school. They do their homework. They say please and thank you. But once you throw that ball up, they will rip your heart out and watch you bleed."

The wizard behind the curtain is Few, the quiet and unassuming coach who shuns the spotlight.

"He doesn't understand why anyone would want to take a selfie with him," said Matt Santangelo, the Zags radio color commentator and the point guard for the 1999 Elite Eight team. "He just doesn't think he's a big deal."

Few comes across as reserved at times, but Pangos said there are plenty of moments when the coach's face has turned beet red with anger "with veins popping out of his neck." When Kyle Wiltjer dunked in the final seconds of a blowout win over Santa Clara last month (instead of letting the clock run out) Few made him call opposing coach Kerry Keating and two players the following day to apologize.

For the most part, though, Few keeps yelling and screaming and cursing to a minimum mainly because he rarely has a reason to be upset. Few said he selects his players carefully and is looking for more than just talent when he recruits.

While some of his coaching rivals make it a point to attend almost every game of the prospect they're pursuing, Few's strategy is different. He tells players he likes that he'd love to sign and coach them, but that he won't be attending all of their AAU games. If a recruit needs his ego stroked to that extent, Few said, he probably wouldn't be a good fit at Gonzaga anyway.

It's hard to find fault with Few's methods. Sometimes he lands players without even trying.

Young Kwak/Associated Press

Three of the key contributors to this year's Gonzaga squad are transfers who contacted Gonzaga when they decided to leave their former schools: Byron Wesley (USC), Eric McClellan (Vanderbilt) and Wiltjer, the Zags' leading scorer who won a national championship at Kentucky.

Few was sitting by Wildcats coach John Calipari at a recruiting event in the summer of 2013 when Wiltjer texted the Kentucky coach about his decision to leave Lexington. Calipari nudged Few on the arm and held up his phone so he could see the message.

"Thanks for everything you've done," it read, "but I've decided to transfer to Gonzaga."

Calipari shook Few's hand and congratulated him on getting a great player.

"Who would've thought 16 years ago," Few said, "that Gonzaga would be getting a player from Kentucky?"

Mark Few is running out of room.

There are trophies on his mantle, trophies on his desk and coffee table and trophies on his floor. In some spots in his office, trophies literally lean against trophies.

Fourteen West Coast Conference championships.

Eleven WCC Tournament titles.

Ten league Coach of the Year awards.

Still, instead of talking about the things his program has accomplished, Few spends more time discussing what it hasn't.

"Every day people ask me if this is the team that's finally going to make the Final Four," Few said.

With three seniors and two juniors in Gonzaga's starting lineup and a backcourt that may be the nation's best, Few certainly believes they have a chance. Gonzaga is 28-1 following Saturday's 70-60 win over Saint Mary's. If the NCAA tournament started tomorrow, it would probably be a No. 1 seed for the second time in three years.

As much as Few hopes this team will become the first team in school history to reach the Final Four, he's irked by the reaction that will surely surface if it doesn't.

While Gonzaga is respected in basketball circles, the casual fan still views the Zags as a team that benefits from playing in a weak conference that leaves its players ill-prepared for the competition they'll face in March.

Pundits note that the Zags have advanced to just four Sweet 16s during Few's tenure and never the Elite Eight. This despite winning an average of 27 games a season over his 16 years as head coach.

"That's a viable question," Few says. "Whether [our league] is the problem, I don't know. But you can point to a lot of little things that happened in our losses that changed the game. It's not like we don't compete. It's not like we get whipped."

Gonzaga's best chance to reach the Final Four under Few was in 2013, when the Zags entered the NCAA tournament with a 30-2 record and a No. 1 seed. But Wichita State hit five late three-pointers—and 14 for the game—to rally past Gonzaga 76-70 in the Sweet 16.

George Frey/Associated Press

In an emotional locker room after the game, Few told the Zags the loss didn't ruin what they'd accomplished all season, that they'd be remembered for more than what had just transpired on the court.

He hopes his players agreed.

"I mean, Wichita State went to the Final Four that year and probably should've beat Louisville to advance to the title game," Few says. "That was a great, great team. There's no shame in losing to them. It wasn't because of our league. We were right there until the end.

"We went 32-3 that season, but there are people who would deem us a failure because we didn't make the Final Four. That's the point we're at in college basketball, and it's unfortunate."

Few wishes more emphasis was placed on how a team performed throughout the entire season, instead of just the tournament. 

Kentucky may have advanced to last year's NCAA title game, but Few sensed his friend Calipari was "miserable" during Kentucky's up-and-down regular season, when the Wildcats lost 10 games.

"Someone asked me the other day if I'd trade all of my runs over 15 years for one Final Four," Few says. "Absolutely not. Are you kidding me? These seasons are six-months long. We usually feel great for six months. One loss shouldn't ruin that.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

"How do you think Connecticut felt for most of last season? They lost by 40 to Louisville. You can't eat or sleep when stuff like that happens. We haven't gone through much of that here. The tournament is a crapshoot. It shouldn't be everything. It's such a shallow thing to pin everything on."

Still, he doesn't need to be reminded that Gonzaga's Elite Eight in 1999 jump-started the program and helped him land the job he has today.

Just as he has for years, Few tries to play as tough of a nonconference schedule as possible. The Zags' lone loss this season was a 66-63 overtime setback against then-No. 3 Arizona in Tucson. And Gonzaga owns victories over SMU, Georgia, St. John's, Memphis and UCLA.

With BYU and Saint Mary's solid almost every year, Few believes the WCC is better than most people think. Still, 10 of Gonzaga's 12 conference wins this season have come by double digits.

Santangelo, the former player and radio analyst, said he's sensed in the past that the monotony of winning big in the WCC causes complacency.

"When March rolls around you need this big, emotional rise," Santangelo says, "and our guys haven't been able to muster it. When I played it was us-against-the-world. Wichita State had the 'Play Angry' theme in 2013.

"This group gets into that routine of beating everyone by 30, but when they're challenged, they're not ready for a bar fight. Two years ago they moved to the top of the polls. You wanted to shake them and say, 'You're ranked No. 1! Act like it! Own it!' "

SPOKANE, WA - JANUARY 22:  Kevin Pangos #4 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs controls the ball against Brad Waldow #00 of the St. Mary's Gaels in the second half at McCarthey Athletic Center on January 22, 2015 in Spokane, Washington. Gonzaga defeated St. Mary's 68
William Mancebo/Getty Images

Santangelo says Pangos, the Zags' senior point guard, is doing everything he can to evoke that type of attitude from his teammates. Pangos and backcourt mate Gary Bell Jr. are seniors who have never advanced to the Sweet 16.

Wiltjer knows what it takes after winning an NCAA title with Kentucky, and Wesley is a fifth-year senior who is driven after transferring from USC, where he never played in the postseason.

Mix in potential NBA post players Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis, and this may indeed be the best team in Gonzaga history. But for most people that won't be determined until the postseason.

Few shrugs his shoulders when asked if advancing to the Final Four would change the narrative surrounding his program.

"Probably," he says. "But that would just show you how weak the narrative was in the first place."

Back at his 4,600-foot home, Few snacks on the smoked steelhead he caught less than a week earlier and cracks open a Beck's nonalcoholic beer.

Few hasn't had a sip of the real stuff since the season began in November. Perhaps this year more than ever, he's dialed in and focused on a strong finish. Gonzaga has been so good in recent weeks that Few has almost had to invent things to get on his players about.

"There are no egos in this locker room," says McClellan, the reserve guard who transferred from Vanderbilt. "We have a tremendous chemistry, and it all starts with Coach Few.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"We put all our trust in him. There's never a defiance. We trust him. That's probably the most important thing between coaches and players."

With Saturday's win over Saint Mary's handing Gonzaga its 14th WCC title in 16 seasons, the Zags' attention—and that of their fans—will soon turn toward March. Few said he's confident his team can compete with any squad in the country and reach its first-ever Final Four in Indianapolis.

"Physically, we're not going to throttle you like Kentucky," Few says. "But our skill level is the real deal."

He pauses.

"But you never know how things are going to play out," he says. "We might face a team that we don't match up well with. The officials could hit one of our big guys with a few early fouls, or a guy for the other team who never makes threes could get lucky and hit a few. If that happens, look out."

That's why Few says this season won't be defined by what happens in March. If the Zags keep making the tournament every year, he said they'll eventually "break the door down" and get to the final weekend.

Even if it doesn't happen, Few said he can't envision his opinion about Gonzaga and his future there ever changing.

According to USA Today, Few made just under $1.2 million last season, which ranked 35th among the 68 coaches in last year's tournament. Few has seen friends such as Dan and Don Monson take jobs for bigger money but fail to succeed on the court. He doesn't want that to happen to him.

Elaine THompson/Associated Press

Few also says he wouldn't enjoy some of the things that coaches at high-profile, Power Five conference schools deal with almost daily.

"We get good media coverage here, but it's not suffocating like it is at some of those bigger places," Few says. "And the headaches of dealing with the posses of the players you have to recruit at those schools is something I wouldn't enjoy."

Few notes that successful coaches at schools in smaller conferences have also been hesitant to take other jobs, most notably Wichita State's Gregg Marshall and VCU's Shaka Smart.

"More people are getting it now: Don't mess with happy," Few says. "When you have something that's running so smoothly and is paying well, why leave?"

Few says he's amused when people suggest he may feel rejuvenated by "a new challenge." He said he faces new obstacles at Gonzaga every day. As much as he's achieved, there is still plenty more to strive for.

Especially during the next couple of months.

"There are some obvious things out there that we haven't accomplished—yet," Few says. "My work here isn't done."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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